by Will Small
A few years back the name Rob Bell was strong enough ammunition to divide some churches. Maybe there are still people that will see or hear his name and feel the impulse to get out their pitchforks.
A decade ago, around the time Bell had just released Love Wins, the book which was famously followed by an exiling tweet from the contemporary father of neo-calvinism himself (John Piper), I found myself browsing in my local Christian bookstore (if these still exist, surely they are heading in the direction of Blockbuster…). It was a small enough space that I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between the only other customer in the store and the owner of the bookshop. They were both lamenting the decisions Bell had made to ‘confuse’ so many people, at which point I couldn’t help but join the conversation.
“Isn’t he just helping people to ask important questions?”
The demeanour of the shop owner shifted, like a mother bird entering defence mode.
“At that level of leadership, people shouldn’t be asking those kind of questions.”
I felt infuriated by this statement back then, and even now as I recall this conversation ten years later I feel something prickle inside me.
Who decided people in leadership shouldn’t encourage people to ask questions? Who decided Christians should be infantilised and protected from critical thinking and genuine philosophical engagement? What kind of faith do we have if asking certain questions can unravel the whole thing in an instant? And if that’s really the nature of our faith — if it can come undone so easily, if its ‘truth’ is so flimsy — is it really one worth protecting so fiercely?
I wonder if it is actually the unspoken prohibition of certain ‘elephant in the room’ questions that has often led people to leave faith communities to ask them somewhere else, when a leader asking difficult questions publicly might actually signal that this is a genuinely safe space where we no one needs to fear getting burned at the stake?
Won’t good questions and genuine engagement with them in the context of healthy community move us into a deeper and more robust faith experience? The answer to this question seems obvious in my mind, and yet I know that this stuff terrifies some Christians more than The Walking Dead.
How often is this kind of attitude driven by fear? The fear of a certain faith system crumbling drives people to suppress, ignore and condemn significant questions about humanity and divinity.
In 1 John 4:18 the following glorious words are found: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
I don’t pull out these words to prop up my judgmentalism towards others. They remind me that, I am not yet perfect in love. Fear rattles around in me on a regular basis, trying to convince me to act out of my own insecurities, prejudices and worst case scenarios about the future. It may parades around as anger, cynicism or self-righteousness. And yet, at a base level how many of these are just different manifestations of fear? In my better (more spirit led?) moments I am able to call out my fear for what it is and choose intentionally to move in the direction of love instead.
I use the word direction intentionally because when it comes to love and fear I have come to conceive of them as opposite ends on the same spectrum. Love is a movement that eliminates distance. It is moving towards the object of love. It is willingly moving into greater vulnerability, greater generosity and ultimately intimacy as love allows us to know and be known by another. Fear is the opposite. Fear creates distance, moves away from the stranger, the foreigner, the estranged family member, erecting barbed wire fences and guard turrets along the way.
In almost all cases a fear of any particular group — LGBTQI+ people, asylum seekers, addicts, you name it — exists where there is no lived relational experience. It’s a lot easier to fear a stereotype when you don’t have lived experiences to challenge it. The opposite is true. Fear comes undone when people are forced into close proximity and relationship with distant stereotypes. It’s a lot harder to prop up your discrimination towards ‘cue-jumping’ refugees when you sit across from someone who has suffered more than you have ever conceived of, and they still manage to exude more gratitude and compassion than you can muster on your best day. It’s far more difficult to disregard or disrespect people who are transgender when your own son or daughter tells you they don’t feel like their body matches their authentic identity. Fear and love are all about distance. Fear is broken by eliminating distance; it grows by creating it.
This is a human problem, not just a church one. We instinctively fear the unknown, trying to protect ourselves from potential danger or threat. But one of the ways this seems particularly heightened in church communities is through a fear of questions.
Of course, there are two categories of questions. Some are allowed. The following list would be generally acceptable:
- How is your ‘prayer life’?
- What book of the Bible are you reading at the moment?
- Would you like another Milk Arrowroot biscuit as we continue to fellowship? (Ok, I know this feels a little dated. But how good was a Milk Arrowroot back in the day?)
But other questions can get you kicked off the boat. Try any of the following in your average congregation and let me know how it goes:
- Is God actually violent? Or is there another way to understand these texts?
- Is God really ‘satisfied’ by seeing Jesus bleed? Isn’t that a bit sadistic?
- Were the Biblical writers actually conceiving of hell as eternal, conscious punishment? Is it possible that when it talks about death, perishing and destruction…it actually means what those words usually mean? Or all those times it took about the renewal of all things…reconciling all of creation…could those verses actually mean something?
The difference is, the first set of questions operates without interrupting an agreed upon framework. The second set of questions disrupts the framework, and asks a bigger metaphysical question:
Are all of our current assumptions correct?
The thing about assumptions, as we all know, is that they make an ass out of u and me. But more importantly, we forget they exist. And yet they dictate how we behave, what we think, and what kind of behaviours we deem to be acceptable. They allow us to maintain clean lines for dividing who is in and who is out.
But there are these moments where our assumptions are shaken. Interrupted. Disrupted. And once we’ve seen them for what they are, it can be hard to ignore them. When the faith you’ve always worn like a precious winter knit starts to feel itchy on your skin. When you don’t have an answer that satisfies you deeply for the question your atheist pal has just asked. When you experience great suffering and loss. Or when you experience profound joy and life. The moment when your assumptions are called into question can be incredibly disorienting. But it can also be an invitation into greater depths. You might just be on the cusp of expanding your view of God. It might just be that love wants to drive out some of your fear.
In my experience, there’s probably nothing has rocked my worldview more than becoming a Dad. When you become responsible for tiny humans, it can profoundly change the lens you view things through. More on this from Hannah in the next post!
Questions to chew over/chat to someone about:
1. Have you ever conceived of love and fear as opposite directions?
2. Who do you fear, from a distance? What would it look like to move towards them relationally?
3. How can you create spaces where people feel safe to ask ‘dangerous’ questions?